Kids Know Exactly How We Feel About Them

We’re not fooling anyone, and the way we interpret a child’s behaviour has a significant influence on how we respond.

I’m in a few parenting groups on Facebook. They’re all groups for parents of neurodivergent kids: ADHD, Autistic, and twice exceptional. Some of the posts, comments, and advice shared are amazing. They’re compassionate, intelligent, and insightful.

Some of the posts and comments make me wonder if the parents even like their kids at all.

I get it. Online parent groups are meant to be safe places to vent, share stories and seek advice. We all feel overwhelmed, frustrated, and just plain angry sometimes. Parenting is bloody hard.

The concerning thing is, if the attitude conveyed by some of the posts and comments make me wonder if these parents even like their kids, you better believe their children have wondered the same thing.

Our kids are way more intuitive and perceptive than we give them credit for, and this is doubly true for neurodivergent kids. My son can smell bullshit from across the room. He’ll know very quickly if an adult doesn’t like him, he’ll pick up on their micro-expressions, non-verbal communication, and tone.

It’s healthy to vent and seek support. We all get burnt out and exhausted from parenting our frequently high-maintenance children. We love our kids, but sometimes it can be difficult to like them in the moment, especially if they are being physically or verbally aggressive towards us.

We’ve all likely heard advice directing us to dislike the behaviour and not the child, but it can be very hard to embody this in practice. Knowing these things intellectually is one thing, but living them daily is a hell of a lot more difficult.

Our children’s behaviour isn’t about us

Sounds counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? Of course it’s about us, we’re their parents! As impossible as it feels, we have to work to not take our children’s behaviour personally, or at least understand when they’re not in control of their behaviour and are doing or saying things they don’t really mean.

When my son called me a bitch, I can promise you I did take it personally, but I also knew he didn’t truly mean it, that he was in fight-or-flight mode, and his brain (and mouth) chose fight.

When he was younger, and before I knew better, I often made my son’s behaviour about me. Why doesn’t he listen to me, why won’t he do what I ask, why is he being so difficult?

The thing is, children don’t wake up in the morning plotting ways to make our lives harder, and they don’t set out to intentionally piss us off.

Quote by Dr. Ross Greene — (image created by author)

Check your expectations

We become frustrated when our kids don’t meet our expectations, but are our expectations fair and realistic for our child in that moment?

A child may be capable of doing something when they’re well-regulated, but if they’re feeling stressed, pressured, or anxious their resources may be too taxed to be able to follow through in that moment.

Does what you’re asking make sense for the child?

We shouldn’t expect our children to share our priorities. They don’t care if the dishes get done, the garbage gets taken out, or their bed is made. Nor should they, they’re kids. While we’re going to have expectations and set boundaries, children should be allowed to have minds of their own.

Are you feeling angry because they truly need to do what you’re asking? Or perhaps is it because your ego is now entering the picture, and you’re frustrated because you’re child isn’t doing what you say, regardless of whether what you say is as important as it feels at that moment.

I’m definitely guilty of this one.

Story time

Once I was at the cottage with my in-laws and extended family on my husband’s side. One of my brothers-in-law is an outspoken guy who likes to tease all of us in a friendly, light-hearted way. He also calls me out once in a while, which I’m okay with because we’ve known each other for more than 15 years, and because I can do the same to him.

My son was probably 6 years old at the time. I’d asked him to do something that he didn’t want to do, and I pulled the do what you’re told right this minute because I’m the adult and I said so card. Out of the earshot of others, my brother-in-law teased me about power-tripping.

Dammit. He was absolutely right — but don’t tell him that.

Whatever it was, it wasn’t so important that my son had to do it immediately, but I had made my request and felt I had to follow through in order to “show him who’s boss”. That wasn’t exactly what went through my mind, but that’s really what it boils down to if I’m being honest with myself.

My son was probably on his way to play with his cousins, which is guaranteed more fun than whatever I’d asked him to do. I could have said something like “sure, you can go play now, we just need to make sure this gets done before lunch time”, and then reminded him in a little while.

“Should thoughts prompt us to come at our kids — provoking their defensiveness and resistance — rather than coming alongside them, which promotes their receptivity.”

 — Susan Stiffelman

How can we do this?

I feel the most important tool in my parenting journey has been information. The more I learn about my son’s neurodivergence, about child development, and about my own neurology, the more I am able to approach challenges with skill and compassion.

It’s not easy. Something parenting and child development experts have been trying hard to impress upon us is to look beneath the behaviour. Be curious about what is underlying the behaviour and what needs or difficulties our children are trying to express.

Another lesson I’ve learned (the hard way — because I learn everything the hard way) is to ensure I am in a calm frame of mind before addressing any concerns. This requires me to identify when I am dysregulated so I can self-regulate. Only then can I effectively provide empathy, support, and comfort to my son.

“A dysregulated adult cannot regulate a child.”

— Dr. Lori Desautels

Lastly, don’t expect perfection — from your child or from yourself. We’re all going to mess up. We can role-model making amends by acknowledging our mistakes and apologizing to our kids. Then we learn from them, dust ourselves off, and try again.

© Jillian Enright, Neurodiversity MB

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Greene, R. W. (2021). Lost & Found: Unlocking collaboration and compassion to help our most vulnerable, misunderstood students, and all the rest. (2nd ed.). Jossey-Bass.

Delahooke, M. (2022). Brain-Body Parenting: How to stop managing behaviour and start raising joyful, resilient kids. Harper Collins.

Desautels, L. (2020). Connections Over Compliance: Rewiring our perceptions of discipline. Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing.

Kohn, A. (2005). Unconditional Parenting: Moving from rewards and punishments to love and reason. Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Stiffelman, Susan. (2013). Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected. Simon & Schuster.

Published by Neurodiversity MB

Jillian has Child and Youth Work diploma as well as a BA in Psychology. Jillian worked on the front lines of Social Services agencies from 2003 - 2012. Jillian has taken numerous continuing education courses and has attended various workshops focused on supporting neurodiverse children, in particular children with ADHD.

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